Tag Archives: Brothers Grimm

The Seven Ravens: a Tale for International Women’s #FolkloreThursday

It’s International Women’s Day today. It’s also Thursday, which invariably generates a flurry of Twitter posts under the hashtag #FolkloreThursday. So, of course, today a fairy tale nerd’s Twitter feed is awash in tweets about women in folklore.

“Ah, women in fairy tales,” you say, “damsels in distress, passively waiting for a prince to come rescue them – right?” Bwhahahahah! Excuse me while I laugh loud and long (not to mention a little scornfully). Yes, sure, they exist, the Sleeping Beauties and Snow Whites in their glass coffins or rose-covered castles (and we love ’em). But just as common are the wide-awake Beauties who are the ones that do the rescuing – of Beasts or Frogs, for example, to mention just two of the best-known tales. And not all of those tales’ happy endings are weddings, either – there are people other than lovers or boyfriends to rescue, you know.

Here is one such story, one that’s always been one of my favourites, featuring a very heroic little girl indeed. It’s well-known in German-speaking countries, but not so much hereabouts. So, in honour of International Women’s Folklore Thursday, let me tell it to you. It’s Grimms’ fairy tale #25, and if you want to read the original without silly side comments, you can find it here. So here goes:


Once there was a man and his wife who had seven sons. (No, this isn’t an advertisement for my book, Seventh Son. Although – hmm, there’s possibilities. What if that youngest son went on to have seven sons himself… Sorry, I digress.) So after a lot of years of wishing, the wife finally gave birth again, and this time it was the longed-for girl. However, the poor little mite was sickly, so the parents decided to do an emergency baptism. They sent the boys to the well to fetch some water.

The seven boys were so excited to have a baby sister, they fought over who would get to dip the jug in the well, and as was inevitable, the jug fell into the well. Now, the kids feared their dad’s temper (with good reason, as you’ll see in a minute) and they didn’t dare go home (I guess the fate of their sister’s soul wasn’t as important as the possibility of getting a smack around the head).

Sure enough, when the boys didn’t come back with the water, Dad got really ticked off (to be fair to him, he was a little stressed at the moment, with the possibility of his baby girl dying without baptism). “They’re probably just fooling around again!” he said. “I wish they’d all turn into black ravens!”

And what do you know – they did.


Dad was very, very sorry, but by then it was too late. The raven boys were gone, and all they had left was one tiny, sick little baby girl.

However, fortunately for them, she survived. Not only that, she grew up beautiful, kind, smart, and, as you shall see, quite determined.

Mom and Dad, feeling rather guilty about the boys, carefully never mentioned their existence to the girl (and I suppose she never thought to ask why her bedroom was full of Lego and GI Joe action figures and the family car was a 12-seater van). But one day, she overheard a couple of gossippy neighbours talking, and she pricked up her ears.

“Mom,” she said, “Mrs Schlipfengruber from next door says it’s because of me that my brothers got lost! What brothers?”

So the parents had to own up, but, being rather decent parents, they assured her that it really wasn’t her fault and there was nothing she could do about it.

Still, the girl wasn’t buying it. She realised quite clearly that even if what happened wasn’t precisely her fault, it still was her birth that had precipitated her brothers’ bad fortune. And besides, she wanted somebody to play Lego with (her pink girlfriends’ Barbie games bored her to tears), so she decided she would go and rescue her brothers. All seven of them.

As she knew her parents well, she didn’t bother telling them what she was up to (they would only have thrown their hands in the air and said “No! You can’t do that! You’re a girl!”). She packed her provisions, which consisted of a loaf of bread and a jug of water (possibly even the same one that had fallen in the well on that fateful day – I’m sure somebody fished it back out), and a little chair to sit on when she got tired (it always seemed tedious to me that she’d carry a chair around with her, but maybe it was one of those collapsible lawn chairs with a carry strap). She also took along a golden ring to remember her parents by.

So she set out, and she walked on, and on, and on, and on, and… (you get the picture). Finally, she reached the end of the world (which is right past the white parts on the map where it says “Here be dragons”), and what’s beyond the end of the world is, of course, the sun.

But the sun really isn’t very nice – quite apart from being a giant flaming ball of gas, it’s also fond of eating children. (Who knew, right?) So the girl grabbed her lawn chair and jug of water, the last drops of which had evaporated when she got close to the sun, and she skedaddled.


Next she got to the moon, but it was no better. It was freezing cold, and it was also fond of children – for breakfast. When it got a whiff of her, it started going “Fee fi fo furl, I smell a little human girl” (or something equally ogrish), and the girl beat it out of there as fast as she could.

But then she got to the stars, and they were actually quite nice. They each had their own chair to sit on (some of them saying “Director” on the back), and they all gave her their autographs, but the morning star, who was the nicest of the lot, gave her something much more useful: he handed her a chicken bone. “This bone,” he said, “is the key to the glass mountain, which is where you’ll find your brothers.”

The little girl, although she wondered what seven ravens were doing inside a glass mountain, thanked the morning star profusely, wrapped up the chicken bone, which was just the size of her pinkie finger, in her hankie (which she, like any well-brought-up child, carried in her pocket) and went on her way.

When she got to the glass mountain, she couldn’t see inside it, so she had no way of verifying if, in fact, her brothers were there, but then that glass mountain wasn’t really the sort of giant paperweight that I always pictured it to be, because it had a door. And that door was locked and had a chicken-bone-shaped keyhole.


So the girl pulled out her hankie, but when she unwrapped it, to her great shock, it was – empty. (The bone had probably dropped out of her pocket somewhere on the edge of Star Land among the crowds of fans pushing and shoving to get autographs from the stars.) So there she was, standing in front of a great glass mountain without a key.

However, as I mentioned, she was determined. She was also good at problem-solving (probably due to all the Lego-building she’d done; it trains the logic brain). You know where this is going, don’t you? That’s right. She pulled out her Swiss Army knife (another legacy of her brothers), and she chopped off her pinkie finger (I know – Ouch!). Being stoic, as well as smart and determined, she didn’t even blink, but took the gruesome relic, inserted it into the keyhole and unlocked the door (although I could never figure out why she had to chop the finger off first).

She walked into the glass mountain and met a dwarf with a great big tray full of food plates. He was by way of being the ravens’ gentlemen’s gentleman, and having been trained in the best butler schools, he politely ignored the fact that she was dripping blood on his freshly polished parquet floors, and asked, “How can I be of assistance, little miss?”

“I’m looking for my brothers, the ravens,” the girl said.

“Ah, yes. Their Lordships Raven will be back momentarily, if you would be so kind as to step this way.” He led the way into the dining room, where he unloaded his tray and set the table with plates and cups and silverware. (Then he probably got the girl a good-sized bandaid, although the Grimms don’t mention the fact. Well, they were linguists, so not the most practical-minded. But I’m sure the dwarf had it covered.)

The dwarf left to do whatever gentlemen’s gentlemen do while waiting for their masters, and the girl (who was acquainted with Snow White and knew how things are done), made the round of the table, taking a bite of food from each plate and a sip of drink from every cup. But when she got to the last place setting, she pulled her parents’ gold ring from her finger and dropped it into the cup.

All of a sudden there was a great rushing of feathers and whirring of wings. The girl quickly scuttled behind the door, hiding. In came seven large coal-black ravens, and they hopped on the table, each in front of one of the plates.

“Hey, dudes,” said the first raven, “somebody’s been at my grub.” (Okay, he probably worded it a bit more elegantly, but that’s the gist of it.)

“Yeah, mine too,” said the next one, “and it was a human!”

One after the other, the raven brothers agreed, until they got to the youngest one, who’d been so hungry he just gulped the food down in one go, and now stuck his yellow beak in the cup for a long drink.

“Whoa!” he cried, “Get a load of this, dudes!” In the end of his beak he held a ring, which he dropped on his plate. “That’s Mom and Dad’s ring,” he said. “Oh man, I wish our little sister were here – then this ‘being ravens’ gig would be over and done with!”

When the girl heard this, she didn’t bother waiting any longer. “Surprise!” she yelled and jumped out from behind the door.

And just like that – WHOOSH! – the ravens’ feathers dropped from them, and her brothers stood in front of her, fully human again. (The Grimms don’t mention whether they had clothes on or not – that’s always an interesting question in these animal-to-human transformations. But kind of beside the point here.)


So of course, everyone was extremely happy, and they packed up their gear (the oldest brother carrying the girl’s lawn chair) and went home to Mom and Dad, who were beside themselves with joy.

Dad never again lost his temper with his children, even when they left their Lego lying on the living room rug and he stepped on it in the middle of the night in bare feet, which proves beyond all doubt that he was a reformed character.

And that is a happy ending indeed.

There are a couple of other tales in Grimms’ that are quite similar and sometimes get mashed up with “The Seven Ravens” – Grimms #49, “The Six Swans“, and #9, “The Twelve Brothers” – they’re even more dramatic, with wicked mother-in-laws and a very narrow escape from being burned at the stake; definitely worth a read, too. But this one always was my favourite (even though my childhood version had no Lego in it).

Life, the Universe, and “The Seven Ravens”. Happy International Women’s Folklore Thursday!



Filed under fairy tales, writing

More Rabbit-Trailing, or: White Cliffs and China Clay

I’m still rabbit-trailing, uh, sorry, researching. And for some reason, I always seem to arrive in the early 19th century again – the time of the Regency, Jane Austen, the Brothers Grimm. What’s with that?

This is how the rabbit trail ran today: I was looking at the creation of porcelain or china (because that’s important for Septimus book #3, Checkmate, which I’m editing at the moment). Unlike regular clay, which you can just dig out of the ground and use more-or-less straight up, the clay body that makes up porcelain is a mixture – the recipe varies depending on what kind of china it is. Bone china, the fine English stuff invented by Josiah Spode in the late 18th century, contains a sizable proportion of actual bone (cow, for the most part, apparently), which is burned and ground up before it gets mixed with the other ingredients. Recipes for china clay were a closely guarded trade secret; in fact, when in 1712 a French Jesuit missionary transmitted the secret of how to make porcelain from China, where he was working, to Europe, it was considered one of the first instances of industrial espionage (however, some German scientists had already figured it out for themselves a couple of years earlier, establishing the porcelain manufacture in Meissen. Science beats spy work – so there!).

Now, that key “other ingredient” in porcelain is kaolin, also called, for obvious reasons, china clay. Kaolin, one of my sources informs me, is really white, and is primarily found in Malaysia and in Cornwall, England. And here’s where today’s rabbit trail comes in: my mind goes, “White deposits of mineral? In Southern England? Wait – the White Cliffs of Dover?” Back to Google I go, to find out what you probably already knew and I remembered just before Google brought it up, namely that the White Cliffs of Dover are made of chalk, not kaolin clay.

Caspar_David_Friedrich's_Chalk_Cliffs_on_RügenAnd then Wikipedia told me that the ones in Dover are by no means the only chalk cliffs around Europe, and that another famous instance of white-cliff-ness occurs on the German Island of Rügen. So, of course, I had to look that up, and remembered and found the famous work by Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, “Chalk Cliffs on Rügen”, from 1818.

And there you have it: the research rabbit trail arrived in the second decade of the 19th century. Just look at that dress, and the hairstyle of the lady! In 1818, Persuasion was published – can we picture Anne Elliot in that outfit? If it wasn’t for the two gentleman in the picture obviously being civilians, it might well be showing Captain and Mrs Wentworth on their honeymoon (they took a friend along on the hike to the cliffs, okay? There’s nothing wrong with spending time with friends, even if it is your honeymoon). Or it might be Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, on holiday with their sister Lotte. And when they get back to their Pension (bed-and-breakfast, or inn), they’ll have a lovely Kaffee und Kuchen (afternoon coffee & cake) off a set of Meissen porcelain.

Life, the Universe, and Rabbit Trails from China to Jane Austen. The pleasures of a writer’s life.


Filed under Jane Austen, The Septimus Series, this and that, writing

Time Travel

Sometimes, there’s this question that goes around on the Internet: if you could time travel to anywhere (anywhen?) in the past or future, where would you go? For me, that statement has to be qualified. First of all, would I go there to stay? That would be a very different deal than just going for a visit and being able to come home whenever I want. If it was to stay, umm, that would rule out anytime pretty much prior to the mid-twentieth century – in fact, I don’t think I’d want to go at all. You see, I think the greatest inventions of recent-ish history is not the Internet, or even plastics – but antibiotics and anaesthesia. I would not want to live in a time or place in the past where those are unavailable. And the future, who knows what it’ll hold, so I’m not going to go there (besides, I’ll get there eventually anyway, so what’s the point of wasting a perfectly good time travel ticket?).

However, if I could go just for a visit – like going camping or something, for a couple of weeks or even months in the summer – there is no doubt where I’d go: the Regency. Hop back exactly two hundred years, to Europe – England first, I think, and then Germany (where it wasn’t called the Regency Period, it was just, well, the beginning of the 1800s).

Jane AustenWhy? Well, obviously: it’s when my most favourite writers were active. It was Jane Austen’s birthday just a couple of days ago (in case you’re wondering, she would have been 239). I kind of missed her birthday, even though the AustenBlog sent me the post about it on Tuesday. Another thing I missed this whole entire year was that it was the bicentennial of the publication of Mansfield Park (ah, the blog entries that could have written on the topic!). Once I got away from studying Austen and into studying fairy tales, I got out of the loop; there’s all kinds of things that whizzed by me.

GrimmsAnd yes, speaking of fairy tales, that’s my other favourite, of course: the teens of the 19th century saw the first edition of the Children’s and Household Tales, aka Grimms’ Fairy Tales. So just think, if I was hanging around Europe two hundred years ago, I could go meet all those awesome writers. However, I think I’d leave the visit to the Grimm family for a decade or so later – in 1814 Germany was still under the occupation of Napoleon’s armies. The 1830s would probably be a better time to go hang out with the German folktale collectors.

I guess that predilection for Austen and fairy tales makes me a Romantic, literarily speaking (is that a word?). I am a romantic in regular life, too – a dyed-in-the-wool lover of weddings and happily-ever-afters – but not quite in the standard mold. A lot of what goes by “romance” in today’s world makes me cringe and/or roll my eyes – pink frilly stuff, ugh. I still haven’t quite figured out the exact connection between “romance” in the weddings-and-happily-ever-after sense and “Romanticism” in the historic-cultural era sense – they’re two different beasts, although one developed from the other, methinks. In fact, there could be a whole other Master’s thesis in the exploration of that particular question, but that’s another topic for another day.

Suffice to say, I’m a romantic and a Romantic – and I’d love to go visit that time and see what it was really like. Dirty and dark for the most part, no doubt, but still, I’d love to check it out. And maybe learn to dance a country dance or two (the waltz was still brand-new and somewhat scandalous, at least in England), drink tea with a raised pinky, and perhaps sit around the Grimms’ parlour and listen to Dortchen Wild tell a fairy tale that Wilhelm Grimm then carefully writes down (between admiring glances cast in her direction – he married her, later on. Now that’s romantic).

Life, the Universe, and Time Travel to the Regency. Where would you go, if you could?


Filed under fairy tales, Jane Austen, this and that